U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley was his normal calm, resolute self at his press conference at RFK Stadium Saturday afternoon ahead of tomorrow's Gold Cup quarterfinal match against Jamaica. On three different occasions, the former D.C. United assistant was asked by Brian Straus of The Sporting News if Bradley felt that there was something greater at stake than a berth in the biennial tournament's semifinals Wednesday night in Houston.
"Just the championship of the Gold Cup," Bradley deadpanned. Straus' line of questioning was finally halted by a U.S. Soccer press man, who told him, "Brian, that's three questions in a row," but Straus had merely spoken what was on the minds of many.
We can debate the meaning of the U.S.'s exhilarating and heartbreaking World Cup adventure in South Africa last summer and whether U.S. Soccer is truly on the right path to becoming a perennial World Cup contender all we like. But Sunday's sold-out match at RFK has clearer stakes. A loss would eliminate the U.S. before the semifinals of the Gold Cup for the first time since 2000. It would deny American soccer fans and CONCACAF the prospect of a redemptive (and, as far as CONCACAF are concerned, money-spinning) final against Mexico at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena next weekend. And most importantly, it would represent the first unqualified failure of mission in Bradley's five-year reign at the helm of the U.S. team.
The spotlight has only become more intense over the course of this tournament after the U.S. lost 2-1 to Panama in their second group stage match, their first loss ever in the group stage of this competition. By contrast, their Jamaican opponents waltzed through the group stage, winning matches against Honduras, Guatemala and Grenada without allowing a single goal.
"They've got speed, especially [New York Red Bulls midfielder Dane] Richards," said Bradley, who is managing his first ever game against Jamaica Sunday. "They do a good job of playing the ball out of the back, their movement is very good. I think the pieces fit together well, and it becomes an excellent quarterfinal match."
Bradley's preparations received an added-dash of garden-variety inconvenience this week, as star midfielders Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey were given time off to attend the weddings of their respective sisters. They players will fly into Washington on red-eye flights late Saturday evening (Dempsey from Texas, Donovan from California), and Bradley is confident that the lost training time and lost sleep won't have an unduly negative effect.
And at the center of all the adversity and distraction is Bob Bradley, who closed his press conference Saturday by answering a question about the mood of the team by saying "We're feeling good about being tested, and that certain things came to light. As a group, we're excited and ready to go."
They'd better be.